This week I've been reviewing my finances trying to figure out where all my money is going, in an attempt to live within my means. As a first step to ending my profligacy, I've adopted a pay-as-you-go-no-credit-ever-unless-someone-is-gonna-die system. Never. Not at all. Nope. To smooth the currently choppy cash flow I've had to borrow a few dollars from my near and dear ones, for the first time since college. I HATE owing anybody anything.
My current downward spiral probably started with the house.
Home ownership had always been held up as a step toward future wealth and a marker of middle class status (which I never really achieved, even after dropping the cost of a REALLY nice car on my Art School Education). I embraced it eagerly. I renovated the first floor apartment and rented it to a quiet woman who'd lived in her previous apartment for 12 years. Her rent would pay most of the mortgage. I would live upstairs and gradually upgrade the space while living there. But the drab rooms were MINE and that fact insistantly urged more extreme intervention.
When I first saw my future apartment it was emptied of a late widow's effects, only ghostly indications of the former placement of removed pictures, beds and bureaus, air brushed onto the walls with nicotine and grime, remained. Except for the kitchen. The room was wrapped in yards and yards of narrow red painted woodden lips, in tiers, supporting hundreds of novelty salt and pepper shakers. They lined the walls like a cliff dwelling Lilliputian army; paired lobsters, penguins, dancing musical notes and grass skirted hula girls stationed at the parapets of a faded wallpaper fortress. Sometime before the settlement they were removed. Now the twinned shadows of the absent legions saddened me, tiny tombstones of a vanished pottery and polystyrene race. The gas range, a rounded white enamel tank with an internally illuminated back splash resembling a jet fighter exhaust, was crusted with long ago meals and congealed dust. It leaked just enough gas to add an odor of decomposition to the emptied masoleum. The refrigerator peed on the floor. Ultimately, I couldnt live with it. So I set to work.
Armed with a deed, a Sawzall and endless, boundless, totally unfocused energy and enthusiasm, I threw myself into the project. My buddies assisted in applying crowbar and sledgehammer, and dropping roomsized sections of ceiling to hoots and high fives. Gutting an apartment is hard physical work, which I'd directed others to perform in the past but never taken on myself. After the dust (literally) settled, I was left with a large empty space which had shortly before been a perfectly functioning one bedroom apartment. .Now it looked the very image of possibility(and also the looming probability of still more sweaty labor). I reveled in the light filled void, interrupted only by the copper reed stumps of the plumping sticking up through the linoleum tile square which marked the site of the kitchen now laid to rest in the municipal land fill, and a few nails indicating the location of vanished walls. I wadded a t shirt into the drain pipe to contain the sewer gasses and proceeded to consider The Place This Could Become. I'm still doing it.
Like Jefferson at his far grander Monticello, I never really decided on a final configuration for the space. Bar napkins and envelopes scribbled with alternate possibilities accumulated in piles like fall leaves, even as the partially constructed early solutions gathered dust. This was hard, and so, true to form, I abandoned this aspect and moved on to something more fun.
I focused on fitting out the bedroom. I added new electrical service, replaced windows, and raised new walls with precisely radiused run plaster edges, and heightened doorways to just shy of the new skim coated ceiling. I hung the fresh brown paper bag colored walls with 70's op-art mirrors, Turkish copper trays, and a Caucasian rug from Great Grand Dad's Sarasota house (which I'd hung upside down for years 'till one day lying on my back and looking up at it realized it pictured a menagerie of geometricized animals I'd set on their hand knotted heads). I placed Continental limed oak, Robsjohn Gibbings, and Wiemar German chrome and plywood (all auction, thriftstore and trash picked. I've got a good eye) on the sea grass matting and steer hide rug, and lit it all up with 50's Italian lamps. Afterwards I took the guys who lhelped me with the various stages out for dinner and drinks. Lots of drinks. I turned out not to have as much energy as I'd though, so the renovation pretty much stalled there. My spending had just begun.
Even at this late stage, my financial retardation was only barely apparent. As recently as ten years ago, I'd yet to open my never balanced checkbook to pen a draught for anything other than rent or the public radio fund drive. I hadn't learned anything since then. Houses are expensive habits. New water heaters are needed even as the car demands a week's pay worth of repairs and the quarterly insurance for the piece of shit is is due at the very same time. Its very easy to charge it all to Visa. On top of such things, and neccesitated by my total lack of interest in even the most rudimentary food preparation and the still only theoretical kitchen, in the intervening half decade I've eaten out every single meal (with the exception of the week I was bed ridden after surgery when friends delivered chicken soup and home made lasagna to my bedroom /dorm room, and the occasional take out indulgence from Whole Foods lavish and costly deli, eaten in bed while watching The Simpsons). Since I was out anyway, I figured I may as well have a few drinks, and buy a round while I'm at it. You get the idea.
Here at the cusp of middle age, I'm known for having no idea what anything costs: a cup of coffee, gallon of gasoline, the total bill for refinishing the floors, or the fees for gas, water and sewer service from the city of Philadelphia. All are mysteries. My mother, who would drive half way across town to save twenty cents on a gallon of milk (I don't know what that costs either) would be horrified. I'm learning now though. For instance THIS month, I've discovered my pay-as-you-go tab equals every penny I've earned, and then some. I'm not used to juggling due dates and pay dates, but will have to figure it out as I can't continue to live under my pre-house non-budget.
So in this transitional period, I don't think I'll be writing about any Manhattan adventures, seaside excursions, or obscure collectibles snatched from unwary dealers (no matter how much of a steal they may be). Not until things level out. It will be only a short period of suffering, I hope. I'm optimistic. So in the mean time if you see me at the bar gazing longingly at your pint like a sad eyed Walter Keene
puppy dog, please consider buying me a beer.
I'll owe you one.